Sports specialization: Is it good for our kids?

February 21, 2017 | Posted in: Elementary, High School, Middle Years

It was a pretty big deal.

My 8-year-old daughter was dropped off that morning at her very first soccer camp. She’s been playing in a youth recreation league for a few years. It’s the kind of league where the coaches don’t keep score, but where you sometimes hear parents whispering summations to each other on the sidelines.

Not only was this Lillie’s first soccer camp, it was her first summer camp of any kind. She was excited about it, if only because it got her away from her pesky younger brother in those final weeks of summer.

The camp featured coaches and trainers direct from Brazil. They traded soccer skills for English language practice. The campers listened to samba, learned Portuguese phrases and a little bit about Brazilian culture. It sounded like a total win for my daughter.

I settled into my workday. It was about three hours later when I got the phone call.

A man with a thick Brazilian accent was on the other line.

“Lee-lee twisted her ankle. She’s ok. We have it iced up. She wants you to pick her up.”

It was an intense practice. They were doing step-over drills, foundations and a lot of other things I can’t translate from Portuguese. When I signed her up for it a few months earlier, I remember asking myself, “Was she ready for this?”

After getting the call from the Brazilian coach, did I have my answer to that question? Or was this just an accident?

This got me thinking. Is specializing in a sport a good thing for kids? What are the negatives?

For some answers, I turned to Rob Bell, a sports psychologist from the Indianapolis area known for his work with the PGA and corporate clients. Bell writes about sports specialization in this article.

It turns out, this hyper-focus on youth sports is a relatively new phenomenon that has grown into a $5 billion-a-year industry and it really started to boom in the early 2000s, according to Bell.

I can attest to this. I live near Cooperstown, N.Y. and youth baseball camps have transformed the economy here, at least in the summer time.

Many more kids are playing or training for the same sport year-round, whether it is baseball, basketball, soccer, golf, tennis or any of the others.

“More isn’t always better,” Bell said.

Sports specialization leads to more injuries among high school athletes, as the same muscle groups are involved in repetitive movements, Bell said.

It can also lead to more burnout, as kids concentrate on league and practice schedules that are counted in months, not weeks.

A recent study by the National Federation of State High School Associations explored this subject in even greater detail.

The flipside of this is that playing multiple sports has some great benefits for kids, according to Bell.

These include increasing “sports IQ,” which is a broad understanding of sports that leads to more creativity; learning how teams and coaches build relationships in different contexts; keeping kids interested and engaged; and learning how to compete, win and lose in different conditions.

“It sucks to strike out with the bases loaded, but in that moment you are going to learn so much about yourself,” Bell noted, adding that clutch experiences in a particular sport may not occur in other sports.

There are also physical development benefits related to how skills and movements in one sport translate to skills in another sport.

After the 1990 and 1994 World Cups, American soccer players began to get increasing attention in other countries. The Americans with the most attention have mainly been goalkeepers, who had been raised on hand-centric basketball and baseball in addition to soccer.

But Bell said even NFL players are a great example, with about 70 percent being multi-sport athletes.  Outside the NFL, great athletes like Tim Duncan, Andy Roddick and Steve Nash all played multiple sports.

The pressure to specialize may come from parents who might think that, with the rising cost of college education, an athletic scholarship may be a great way to pay for their child’s education, Bell said.

“If parents knew what it took it to be a D-1 athlete, they would never sign them up,” Bell said.

The only sports that typically offer full scholarships for young men are basketball and football, according to Bell. For women, there are more scholarship opportunities. But the cost of leagues and camps over many years for a child can be great.

“Are you really going to get a return on investment?,” Bell questioned.

But the bigger issue really is about a child’s development and his or her happiness.

“It’s tough to be driven when you are being driven,” Bell said.

The reality is most kids never play Division I and far fewer end up as professional athletes. But sports still have great value.

In the end, if your child is destined for the elite arenas of Division I collegiate sports or even the professional ranks, playing a variety of sports may actually be an asset. If not, being involved in multiple sports offers great character building opportunities for kids.

“You want sports to be able to teach the skills that will last long after the sports are over,’’ Bell said.

My daughter spent a couple weeks on crutches, but she recovered just in time for her fall soccer season. It’s now time to sign up for spring soccer, and we’re hoping the Brazilians bring their camp to town this summer.

Lillie and my son were exposed to soccer at a young age, through backyard kick-arounds and loud World Cup matches on the television. She has a passion for soccer, but she’s just 8-years-old. She has a passion for a lot of things – singing, guitar, art, the outdoors and science experiments.

I’m going to sit back and let her drive.

Jake Palmateer is a public information specialist for Capital Region BOCES. He is the father of a 6-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter. Their adventures include camping, hiking, metal detecting, painting, stargazing, reading, fishing, soccer, mowing the lawn and baking cupcakes.

Copyright ©2017 by Parent Today and Capital Region BOCES; Used with permission.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,